Entries for September 2005

September 30, 2005

Paley's watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the "Mount Rushmore" argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. (emphasis in original)

This idea that it should be obvious to anyone when something is designed and when it is not permeates the literature of the IDC movement and variations of the Mount Rushmore argument is brought up repeatedly because it provides a concrete image of the idea and has a simple persuasiveness. On a recent episode of The Daily Show Dembski was asked by host Jon Stewart about ID and he brought up the Rushmore example again, showing how valuable they think this example is, since on such shows you only have a few minutes to make your case.

Theologians and philosophers, of course, know that this type of argument has a venerable history and goes back two hundred years to the Christian apologist William Paley (1743-1805) and even earlier. Paley was an Anglican priest and in his book Natural Theology (1802) he talks about what would happen if you were walking across a field and came across a stone. You would not ask how it got there because it would seem perfectly natural that the stone had always been there and was not specially created and kept there. But what if you came across a watch? We can quote Paley himself:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.

The IDC argument is to say that there are things in nature that are analogous to the watch and Mount Rushmore in that they clearly could not have occurred naturally and they point to various biological systems that they claim support their position. The more sophisticated IDC people like Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box) take a minimalist approach and point to just a few (five actually) biochemical systems and processes as showing signs of design. But other religious believers take a more expansive view requiring a designer for a rising number of things, like the human eye, humans themselves, animals, etc. Some of them say that all living things must require a designer.

But whatever the sample that is selected for this purpose, all these things, they say, are too complex to have occurred by the gradual process of random mutation and natural selection, with a large number of small changes leading to the large variations in species that we see today.

The usual response by biologists to this argument is that the appearance of design in nature is just an illusion, that random mutations and natural selection are capable of producing the complex biological systems that we mistake for designed objects. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker explicitly addresses Paley's argument, and he followed it up in his other book Climbing Mount Improbable.

But apart from the biological issues, there is also a philosophical argument that is not often brought up and this will be discussed in the next posting.

September 29, 2005

It's the Rael thing - 3

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed how the Raelian theory of how life was far more comprehensive than that of intelligent design creationist theory. So all the arguments used by IDC (intelligent design creationist) advocates for inclusion of their theory in science curricula apply even more strongly to Raelian theory. Furthermore, while some might be able to dismiss the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a Johnny-come-lately competitor to IDC doctrine, that charge cannot be leveled against the Raelian model which has been around since the early 1970s and claims over 35,000 believers in over eighty five countries (according to Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel). So Raelism actually precedes the latest incarnation of intelligent design.

The belief structure of the Raelians is based upon messages sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial Elohim race through Claude Vorilhon (a French journalist and race car enthusiast) who claims that he was twice contacted by aliens who came in flying saucers and revealed to him the story of how life originated on Earth. Vorilhon is called the "Guide of Guides" by his followers and adopted the name of Rael.

But is the Raelian theory of life science? In a series of earlier postings, I said that for a theory to be even considered as a candidate for science it had to meet two necessary conditions. One was that it had to be naturalistic (and by this I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism) and the second was that it had to be predictive. The latter feature meant that the theory had to have some feature or mechanism that enabled it to be used to make predictions, because that was what made a theory useful to scientists.

I said that IDC failed on both counts, since it had the idea of an intelligent designer who was undetectable and could not be counted upon to act in predictably in a manner that could be tested by any sort of observations.

The Raelians are one step better than IDC theorists in that their theory is materialistic in that the designer who produced the seemingly designed biological species was not a supernatural deity but merely space aliens.

But the Raelian theory suffers from the fact that their theory is not predictive. There is nothing in their theory that enables scientists to do anything with it. All scientists can do is to wait around until the aliens decide to visit us again and show us their latest creations.

This is the problem with all theories that contain appeals to revelation, divine or otherwise. While they may be satisfying an emotional and spiritual need, and appeal to their faithful followers (and there is nothing wrong with that), they simply do not provide science with anything useful to work with.

The scientific community rejects the inclusion of Raelian and IDC theories within the family of scientific theories, not because they are inherently opposed to revelatory notions (after all, many scientists are religious), but because such types of theories have no applications.

The Raelian theory also just pushes the evolutionary question one step away. After all, how did the Elohim come about on their own planet? How did they become so advanced in their technology? Did they too evolve according to some Darwinian model? Or were they created by another alien race? According to the FAQ on their website, the Raelians were created by other extraterrestrials and so on, and that one day the people on Earth will similarly populate other planets. This is, of course, an infinite regression model, but not more difficult than the "who created god?" question posed to believers in a god. As long as you are only interested in how life came to be on Earth, the Raelian model "explains" it well.

But it would be interesting to see how IDC theorists respond to Raelian theory. If IDC theory is accepted by various school boards for inclusion in the school science curriculum because it "explains" some things that evolutionary theory cannot, then I do not see any grounds for rejecting Raelianism. In fact, using the IDC yardstick, Raelianism should actually replace IDC in schools because it "explains" everything that IDC does and some others things that IDC theory does not have ready explanations for, thus clealy being a better theory.

The Raelians have so far not been pushing for the inclusion of their ideas in science classes. But it would not surprise me if, if IDC people succeed in the court case currently underway in Dover, PA, they seize the opportunity to urge that their own program be included in science curricula too. (See here for a blog on the trial maintained by the ACLU which is challenging the Dover school board's decision. Interestingly, Robert Pennock, whose book I have been quoting about the Raelians, testified yesterday.)

Coming soon to a courtroom near you, the case of Intelligent Design v. Raelianism….

POST SCRIPT: Update on the trial of "The St. Patrick's Four"

In the trial of the antiwar protest group referred to in the post script of a previous posting, they were acquitted of the serious felony charge of conspiracy but were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of damage to property and trespassing.

September 28, 2005

It's the Rael thing - 2

In an earlier post, I introduced the basic Raelian idea of how the various life forms on Earth were planted here after being created by the Elohim genetic engineers living on their distant planet. (See Robert T. Pennock's excellent book Tower of Babel, pages 233-242.)

The Raelians have a pretty comprehensive theory that in the wealth of its details puts the IDC theory to shame. The Raelian explanations for many of the features of life are stunning in their simplicity and their explanatory power.

Take for example, the fact that many flowers and birds and animals have beautiful colors and scents and ornamental features that seem to serve no obvious functional purpose. Evolutionary theorists have to work hard to show how these features could arise from the small differential advantages they provided along their slow evolutionary trek to what we see now. (See Richard Dawkins' book Climbing Mount Improbable, among others, for how some of these seemingly designed things came about according to Darwinian theory.)

IDC theory on the other hand simply sees biological sophistication and complexity as evidence for a designer, which is not really an explanation. But the Raelian explanation is far more straightforward. Their Elohim biological engineers worked closely with their artists to create not just functional organisms but also things of beauty. These artists were allowed in many instances to allow their creativity to run wild, even if in some cases form took precedence over function so that some birds, like peacocks, were barely able to fly but looked terrific. The spectacular plumage of some tropical birds can be attributed to a Raelian Jackson Pollock letting fly with the pigments.

What about the creation of human beings? This was their biggest technical challenge because we were to be created in the image of the Elohim. To achieve that result, they started with monkeys and tweaked them, experimenting with adding the kinds of features that make us human. Not all their experiments were successful and the errors resulted in the fossils found on Earth that, according to Raelians, Darwinian evolutionists mistake as being our evolutionary ancestors.

So in a sense, the Raelians agree with evolutionary theory that there is some hierarchy in the order in which biological organisms occurred on the Earth and thus there is some element of 'descent with modification.' But they disagree with modern biology (and agree with the IDCs) by saying that these organisms were designed and not the result of natural selection. The increasing complexity of life with time as revealed by the fossil record is, according to the Raelians, the consequence of more and more advanced and ambitious experimentation. But they disagree with the IDC people by saying that the designer was not god or anything supernatural but simply Elohim genetic engineers.

If you are looking for the 'best' explanation of life on Earth according to the criteria that IDC people would like to have us use, then the Raelian explanation beats ID hands down. With god as the intelligent designer for IDC, there is always the awkward question of how to explain those features of life that are not well designed, such as the human appendix. Or to explain the presence of diseases and death and other things that seem to not be very intelligently designed. Or to explain the existence of suffering. It is hard to understand why any intelligent designer would create Down's syndrome and the many other cruel diseases that afflict children and adults. Looking at those seeming defects makes one want to echo the words of Alfonso X (king of Castile and Leon from 1252 to 1284 CE) who, surveying the increasingly messy picture of the solar system that was being described by the Ptolemaic system was driven to proclaim that "if God had consulted him when creating the universe he would have received good advice." (Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, page 69.)

The IDC response to these challenging questions is to invoke the inscrutability of god. They say that we cannot know the aims and purposes of the designer so we are not in a position to judge the suitability of the design. They say that the purpose of the design is currently hidden from us but we have to accept on faith the existence of a purpose. It is not an unreasonable response, once one accepts the existence of an inscrutable god, but it does come off as somewhat defensive and unsatisfying to all but the true believers.

But the Raelian explanation has no problems at all with these questions. If some designs are flawed it is because they were made by imperfect aliens who, while advanced in their technology, were still experimenting and made mistakes. So cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, and the like are bugs in the design. Raelian genetic engineers, squirreled away in their distant research laboratories, are presumably still working on better models. It is just our bad luck that we were based on engineering blueprints that were available before they had developed better models of humans.

The Raelian model explains a lot of other stuff as well. There is a huge industry involving speculations that aliens have visited the Earth. Even in the Bible there are passages that are puzzling but have been interpreted by some as being evidence of early alien visits. For example, in Genesis 6:1-4, just prior to the great flood story, there is a passage that says that "the sons of the gods saw that the daughters of men were beautiful so they took for themselves such women as they chose…In those days, when the sons of the gods had intercourse with the daughters of men and got children by them, the Nephilim were on earth. They were the heroes of old, men of renown" (The New English Bible adds a footnote that translates Nephilim as giants.)

Who are these mysterious "sons of the gods" who, without warning or explanation by the writers of Genesis, suddenly appear on Earth and just as suddenly disappear? I have no idea what conventional theology says about this but Raelians say that these were a few of the Elohim aliens who were so enamored of their own creations that they formed liaisons with them. And there's more. The fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? Atomic bombs dropped by the aliens. The Ten Commandments? Given to Moses by one of the visiting aliens. And so on.

Similarly Raelians suggest that the other Biblical and non-Biblical "evidence" for visits to earth by extraterrestrials that were championed by Erich von Daniken in his book Chariots of the Gods (which enjoyed a huge vogue a few decades ago and is still a source of inspiration to UFO enthusiasts) are also due to visits by the Elohim.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. Since the writers of the Biblical books had no understanding of such advanced technology, the Elohim and their acts were baffling to the writers who, being unable to comprehend such an advanced technology, saw in them acts of gods.

As you can see, the Raelian theory is pretty comprehensive. So if you want a theory that really "explains" things that other theories cannot, which is the measure that IDC advocates assert is the measure of a good theory, Raelism leaves IDC theories in the dust.

But is it science? We'll see in a future posting. But if the suspense is unbearable for you, here's a hint: The answer is no.

POST SCRIPT 1: When bad things happen

Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show ponders the age-old question: Why does God allow things like Katrina to happen?

September 27, 2005

It's the Rael thing

In earlier postings on the issue of so-called 'intelligent design creationism' (IDC) I said that supporters of IDC assert that methodological naturalism and the ability to make predictions, which are the characteristic features of scientific practice, should be abandoned and that what should be the deciding factor in evaluating competing theories is to see which one explains things 'better.' They then go on to claim that since natural selection has not provided convincing explanations of some biological systems, that means that those things are probably 'designed' by an 'intelligent designer'. The main IDC spokesmen (and they all do seem to be men) are coy about identifying this designer but after exhaustive study I have discovered who they are referring to and I'll share the secret with this blog's readers: It is god.

I (and countless others) have written before about all the logical and evidentiary fallacies behind this argument. For starters, negative evidence against a scientific theory can never be considered as positive evidence in favor a competing theory because it is never the case that there are only two competing theories.

But here I want to take the IDC argument about using better 'explanations' as the yardstick for theory quality at face value and see where, if the IDC policy is accepted, it can lead. And one place it leads to is, interestingly enough, the Raelians.

Some of you may remember the Raelians. They received a huge amount of publicity in 2002 when one of their spokespersons announced that they had successfully cloned a human being, that the baby (named Eve) had been born on December 26, 2002, and that four other cloned babies were on the way. They said that the mother and baby identities would be revealed later. The media was all over the story at first but it petered out when no evidence was presented in support of this sensational announcement. It looks like the whole thing was an elaborate hoax.

At that time, having no other knowledge of the Raelians, I thought that they were just some publicity-seeking crackpot sect but in reading Robert T. Pennock's excellent book Tower of Babel, I learned some interesting things about the Raelian religion and it is clear that they have the 'best' explanation of all for the source of life on Earth.

The Raelians agree with the IDC people's argument that Darwin's theory of evolution as descent with modification (using the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection) is wrong because life on Earth is too complex to have evolved that way and must have been designed. But unlike the IDC people, they not only know who did the designing but are not hesitant to proclaim the news. It is not god. It is extra-terrestrials.

According to the Raelians, on a distant planet there lived a highly advanced alien community called the Elohim that long ago had reached a stage of scientific and technical knowledge whereby they had developed powerful biological engineering techniques that enabled them to make living cells and to tinker and modify them. But naturally they were fearful about letting loose these experimental organisms into their own environment because of the harm they could do. So they looked for a lifeless planet that they could use as a field test laboratory for their genetic engineering and found one. That planet was the Earth. So they used our planet to create a home for all their creations so that they could safely see what worked and what didn't, just like scientists do in their own labs.

They took the lifeless planet Earth and staring building life on it. Starting with creating simple cells, they proceeded to create seeds, grasses and other vegetation and progressed to create plankton, small fish, then larger fish, then dinosaurs, sea and land creatures, herbivores and carnivores before they tacked the big project, creating beings like themselves. Thus came homo sapiens. This, according to the Raelians, is how the Earth became populated with all the life forms we see around us.

I must say that I was completely fascinated by this scenario. It is too beautiful for words. The details of how the Raelians set about designing their creations are also fascinating and in the next posting I will show why this explanation for life on Earth is far 'better' than the one proposed by IDC advocates.

POST SCRIPT 1: Forum on Katrina

Case's Share the Vision program is hosting an open forum on Katrina in which I will be a panelist. The program is at 4:15pm in the 1914 lounge of Thwing. For more details, see here

POST SCRIPT 2: Dover court case on ID

Yesterday was the opening day of the trial by eleven parents of the Dover PA school district challenging the school board's decision to include ID as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

You can read about what happened on the opening day of the trial here.

September 26, 2005

Justice as fairness and limits to religion

In response to an earlier posting, Jake took issue with my assertion that a secular society in which religion stayed in the private sphere was least likely to create friction amongst different religious beliefs.

He invoked the first amendment to the US constitution to imply that it would be unconstitutional to prevent Christianity from the public sphere. He also made the argument that there seemed to be no good reason to even try to do so since Christianity in the US had always been benign and that it seemed wrong to restrict it to the private sphere out of a sense of fairness. He felt that there was nothing sacrosanct about 'fairness' that made it worth exalting to a position of a primary organizing principle for society. He said that "there is no law demanding that the majority make the minority feel like everything is fair? No, they [i.e. people who argue for a secular public sphere] religiously believe that fairness is the highest ideal."

Constitutional provisions are important but applying them consistently has not been easy. For example, the First Amendment does not allow any and all religious practices. Polygamy amongst Mormons and the smoking of peyote among some Native American groups have both been disallowed even though both groups claimed a religious basis for their actions.

Christian Scientists also have faced restrictions on whether they can withhold medication from their children, but here the issue becomes more complicated because of the issue of the extent to which children should be subjected to their parents' beliefs. It is not unreasonable to argue that children should not have to risk sickness and death because of the religious beliefs of their parents.

But polygamy and peyote smoking are acts involving freely consenting adults, the people that I assert should have the least restrictions on their behavior, but the state still seemed to find reasons for restricting such acts. Similarly, I am not sure what interest the state has in preventing, say, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes or forcing people to use seat belts. I always wear my seat belt because it seems to me to be silly not to and I am fully convinced of its benefits. But when I was in a car with a colleague, someone whom I consider to be extremely sensible, he did not buckle up. When I asked him why, he said it was because he resented being forced to do something "for his own good." If it was for his own good, he felt that he should be the one making the decision.

The First Amendment does not provide a blanket guarantee of religious freedom but draws lines concerning what religious groups can and cannot do. And it is deciding where to draw the lines that things can become messy. Saying that other religions have nothing to fear from Christianity does not completely address the issue because all it takes is one conflict somewhere for things to turn acrimonious. Suppose that a small community somewhere in the US happens to develop a Muslim majority. Would people be amenable to having the crescent symbol in city hall or to start meetings with a Muslim prayer facing Mecca?

My point is that as the US becomes more and more multi-religious, such scenarios become more and more likely. Allowing religion in the public sphere would result in a multitude of religious voices competing for space in it, and adjudicating those disputes is bound to be complicated and cause bad feeling. The alternative would be to grant one religion (obviously in the US it would be Christianity) special privileges in the public sphere not granted to others. It is not clear to me whether the US Supreme Court would decree that the First Amendment allows that but if it did, then the US becomes legally like Muslim countries that give a special place to Islam or like Sri Lanka in giving pride of place to Buddhism.

It is true that I elevate 'justice as fairness' to a primary organizing principle for structuring the institutions of society. In this, I agree with John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice where he argues that the desire for justice as fairness is an almost intuitive need of humans. Even little children, long before they are aware of abstract concepts such as liberty and freedom and even religion, have an understanding of fairness. "It's not fair" is perhaps one of the most common complaints voiced by children. It is the one principle that is rigidly incorporated into all our games and sports.

Of course, how this principle of 'justice as fairness' manifests itself in concrete ways is something that needs to be worked out, and Rawls' 'veil of ignorance' suggests a procedural method although it is not always obvious how to apply this. (See here for an earlier posting on this and links to other posts.)

So we seem to have three options: (1) we have a secular state for the public sphere with wide religious freedom in the private sphere or (2) we have every religious belief having equal access to the public sphere or (3) we give access in the public sphere to only one religion.

Those who believe that one particular religious tradition is right and the others wrong, or that one religious tradition is inextricably identified with this country, most likely will support the third option. But given that religious beliefs are presumably freely chosen, it is not inconceivable that there could come a time in the future when, say, Islam is the majority religion in the US. Would the people currently supporting option three still hold to that position in that event?

My own position argues against assigning any specific religion pride of place in the public sphere, thus ruling out option three. This leaves me with options one or two. But I also feel that option two, while 'fair', is likely to be awkward in actual implementation since the question of what constitutes a legitimate religion is hard to adjudicate.

This leaves me thinking that only the first option, of having a secular public sphere and wide religious freedom in the private sphere, allows for harmonious co-existence.

POST SCRIPT: Massive antiwar rallies last weekend

Saturday, September 24 saw a massive antiwar rally in Washington DC and other cities around the world. Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable but it seems like between 100,000 and 200,000 people turned up in Washington. See here for more articles and photos.

September 23, 2005

The pledge of allegiance and political divides

I love history because when one looks into the historical roots of current events, one uncovers all kinds of interesting bits of information. This is true about the pledge issue. In addition to the (by now) well-known fact that the phrase "under God" was not part of the original pledge at all and was only added in 1954 as part of the Cold War fight against "godless Communism," there is an interesting history to the pledge that suggest that the people on either sides of the lines being drawn on this issue are not as predictable as one might expect. For example, it is now assumed that the people who oppose the inclusion of the phrase "under God" are "on the left" or "liberal" and that those who want it included are "on the right" or are "conservative," whatever those labels might mean. But a little investigation shows that things are not so simple.

Gene Healy, Senior Editor of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out after the 2002 ruling that the pledge exemplifies the kind of devotion to the state that conservatives should be wary of and he is puzzled by why they have rushed to defend it.

"It's probably too much to ask politicians to reflect a little before they lunge for a political hot-button issue. But any conservatives so inclined should think about what they're defending. What's so conservative about the Pledge?

Very little, as it turns out. From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as "Jesus the Socialist."

Though no one can be legally compelled to salute the flag, encouraging the ritual smacks of promoting a quasi-religious genuflection to the state. That's not surprising, given that the Pledge was designed by an avowed socialist to encourage greater regimentation of society.

Regardless of the legal merits of Newdow's case - which rests on a rather ambitious interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment clause - it's ironic to see conservatives rally to such a questionable custom. Why do so many conservatives who, by and large, exalt the individual and the family above the state, endorse this ceremony of subordination to the government? Why do Christian conservatives say it's important for schoolchildren to bow before a symbol of secular power? Indeed, why should conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without "under God"?

The idea that the pledge is somehow neutral with respect to religion is addressed by one of the judges in the 2002 9th circuit verdict. From the website The Moderate Voice we find that Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote:

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation "under God" is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation "under God" is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase "one nation under God" in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and - since 1954 - monotheism. A profession that we are a nation "under God" is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation "under Jesus," a nation "under Vishnu," a nation "under Zeus," or a nation "under no god," because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. The school district's practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, including the religious values it incorporates.

The verdicts on issues like the pledge, the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, and school prayer will not affect the daily life of anybody in any noticeable way. But where people stand on this issue does say a lot about how they view their individual rights and liberties in relation to the rights of the state, and about their views of the relationship of the state with religion.

POST SCRIPT: The case for immediate withdrawal from Iraq

Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24 is the big antiwar march and rally in Washington DC. Tom Englehardt and Michael Schwartz make the case for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

September 22, 2005

The Pledge of Allegiance back in the news

There seems to be no battles that the public and the media enjoy more than symbolic ones that have little or no effect on the actual lives of people. Among these are battles over the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance.

And that last issue is back in the spotlight now that US District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton in California has held that including the phrase in the pledge does indeed make the reciting of the pledge in schools unconstitutional. A similar judgment was arrived at in 2002 and that earlier decision was upheld by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Karlton said that he was bound by that precedent. That earlier case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which essentially punted by saying that the parent in that case (Michael Newdow who also acted as his own lawyer) did not have standing to file suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter on whose behalf he was objecting to the phrase. Thus the Supreme Court avoided having to rule on the merits of the case.

This time around it was again Michael Newdow who filed the suit but on behalf of three other unnamed parents who presumably do have custody since Judge Karlton said that the unnamed parents in the new case had the standing to sue.

Opponents of removing the "under God" phrase have vowed to appeal the new ruling to the same 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court again upholds Karlton's ruling, then we would have two conflicting appeals court rulings, since in August of just this year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, similar to the requirement in California. It seems that this issue is again likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.

While the courts may be divided on this issue, there is no doubt about where Congress stands. In their rush to be seen as being on what they perceive as the side of god and patriotism, the Senate has already condemned the new ruling and said in a non-binding resolution approved by unanimous consent that it approves the pledge as it stands and said "that the phrase "one nation under God" in the pledge reflects the religious faith central to the founding of the nation and that its recitation is "a fully constitutional expression of patriotism."" After the 2002 appeals court decision, both House and Senate passed similar resolutions.

An interesting feature about this case is that the families on whose behalf Newdow filed his latest suit have chosen to be nameless. One assumes that this is because they fear a backlash in their communities and that they and their children might be the targets of hostile words and even actions.

This raises the question of why people get so angry over this kind of symbolic action. Why do people care so much that it generates this kind of fear? Why not simply let the case work its way through the courts and be done with it?

In general, I feel that saying things like the pledge, with or without the phrase "under God," are only meaningful if done completely voluntarily and should not be part of organized rituals where people feel obliged to participate. Pledges to the flag, country, god, or whatever are pointless if they are done under explicit or implicit coercion. In fact, such forced assertions of allegiance or belief are likely to breed cynicism or become so routine that people just go through the motions.

But while I have definite preferences on each of the things I listed at the top (public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance) I really don't care so much that I get all upset about them. If the Supreme Court rules that the phrase "under God" is constitutional, I will disagree but it is not going to cause me any sleepless nights. If they throw out the phrase "under God," I will approve of that decision as part of my belief that the public sphere should be secular, but you will not find me throwing a big party or dancing in the streets.

What really concerns me is that there are a lot of people for whom this issue is a huge deal, so much so that people who challenge the constitutionality of the pledge are seemingly fearful of even having their names known. That is wrong. People should be able to take any stand they wish on issues such as these without having to fear personal abuse or harm.

POST SCRIPT 1: Antiwar activists go on trial

Four Catholic antiwar activists who already stood trial for their stand against the invasion of Iraq and were cleared of the original charge of criminal mischief, are now, two years later, being charged with by federal authorities on conspiracy charges for the same actions and will be tried again. Leigh Saavedra reports on the case and the extent to which the government will go to silence critics of its war.

POST SCRIPT 2: Phil Donahue socks it to Bill O'Reilly

Phil Donahue takes on Bill O'Reilly and gives a lesson on how to argue with loud bullies.

September 21, 2005

When does "looting" become legal?

The events following Katrina have raised disturbing questions about what to do about "looting" in situations such as those.

One grants that looting just for the sake of personal enrichment or to take advantage of another person's weakness is wrong on both legal and moral grounds.

But what about looting for survival? If people are hungry and thirsty, is it appropriate for them to break into a locked store and take food and water, against the wishes of the owner? Or what if they steal a vehicle to escape from danger? In this Reuters photograph by Rick Wilking Reuters3_L.jpg the caption reads "Texas game wardens force people who used a mail truck to escape the flooded areas of East New Orleans to lie on the highway Aug. 31, 2005. The people were freed but forced to continue on foot." The photograph clearly indicates that the people were being treated like criminals.

Except for those who have raised property rights to the level of a fetish, most people would concede that those who "looted" food and water out of desperation had the moral right to do so because all of us can easily envisage ourselves being in that kind of situation and doing the same thing. But most of us would also likely argue that while the action itself was legally wrong (on some absolute scale), such people should not be prosecuted, which is what seemed to have happened to the mail truck appropriators. The truck was taken away from them but they were not arrested.

But do such people also have a legal right to do this? In other words, could it be that they were not even guilty of theft under the law, even if some zealous prosecutor values property above all other considerations and orders them arrested and charged? Jonathan Rowe argues that they do have such legal rights. He says:

There is a legal tradition that justifies such action, and it comes from the theological teachings the President harkens to on other matters, and also the Natural Law teachings so favored by rightward judges. It is called the doctrine of "overruling necessity", and it says that property is secondary in times of urgent human need. "Necessity sets property aside," wrote Thomas Rutherford, a noted 18th century legal commentator, in his Institutes of Natural Law. At such times there is a "community of goods."


Natural law theory typically is invoked to establish the sanctity of private property. But as Rutherford said, it contains the seed of this exception too. Here's John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, which is a bible of the property rights camp. It is a "Fundamental Law of Nature," he said, that the property claims of the rich man "must give way to the pressing and preferable Title of those who are in danger to perish without it."


A kindred world view is evident in the colonial laws permitting people to hunt and fish on other peoples' land so long as it wasn't fenced. When push came to shove, the need for sustenance came before abstract rights of property. What is most interesting though is how the proponents of the law of necessity justified it. It was not that a needy individual had a claim on what belonged to other people. Rather, it was that the needy person had a prior property right - a common property right - that trumped the latter one in this circumstance.

At some point in the distant past, the argument went, all property was a commons. From this common pool, individuals asserted private claims, justified in Locke's version by their own toil upon the land.


But these private claims are provisional not absolute. They are valid in normal times but not all times. "[I]n cases of extreme necessity," observed Hugo Grotius, the noted 17th century jurist, "the original right of using things, as if they had remained in common, must be revived; because in all human laws, and consequently all laws relating to property, the case of extreme necessity seems to form an exception."

Natural law theory assumes that people consent to the impositions of society by a kind of implied contract. Property is part of that contract. "No one," observes Novak, summarizing the commentators, "could be assumed to have consented away the right to use another’s property when self or social preservation were in jeopardy."

Not being a legal scholar, I cannot really judge the validity of Rowe's thesis. But I found the idea that at one time all property was considered to be in common and that this prior right to property can be legally (and not just morally) invoked in times of extreme need to be highly intriguing.

POST SCRIPT: The "battle" for the New Orleans Convention Center

One of the many curious, if not tragic and outrageous, things about the plight of the people housed at the New Orleans Convention Center in the wake of Katrina was how quickly they became viewed by some of the security forces as some kind of "enemy" to be defeated in a manner similar to the way Iraqi insurgents are battled, with the Convention Center itself being viewed as a hostile stronghold to be conquered like, say, Falluja.

This extended blog item describes this mentality and is worth reading.

September 20, 2005

Why we should leave Iraq immediately

(Text of the talk prepared for the Camp Casey meeting held on Friday, September 9, 2005 at Church of the Savior, Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.)

I suspect that most of us who are here are people who opposed the war on Iraq from the beginning. So I will not spend time making the argument that a country that waged an immoral and illegal war after selling it to the nation and the world under the false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction is not a country that should be allowed to continue its domination of the country it conquered.

Instead, I will address my remarks to those of us who are genuinely upset at the death, injuries, and havoc that has been wreaked on both the Iraqi people and the American soldiers occupying that country and their families back home. Such well-meaning people now seek to salvage whatever good that can be extracted from an essentially impossible situation, a situation that has been created by the political leadership of this country who either knew, or should have known, better and yet recklessly went ahead with this disastrous policy.

The group of well-meaning people trying desperately to salvage something good from this bad situation fall into two categories: those who favor an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and those who feel there is a case to be made for staying on until some suitable stage is reached that would allow for the gradual withdrawing of troops.

Although I can understand, appreciate, and sympathize with the reasons given for staying on for a while, I belong to the group favoring immediate withdrawal. Some of the arguments favoring immediate withdrawal are in the flyer that was handed out and I will not repeat them. The flyer, incidentally, also makes suggestions for what you can do.

In broad terms, the arguments for not withdrawing US troops immediately fall into two categories: humanitarian and those of US national interest.

The humanitarian argument says that since it was the US invasion that destroyed the infrastructure that had made Iraq a functioning country and held the different ethnic groups in Iraq together, US troops need to stay on for some time to rebuild the country's infrastructure so as to prevent anarchy or an ethnic bloodbath or the splitting up of the country.

Unfortunately, the history of what happens after colonial powers leave a country (and Iraq is now effectively a colony of the US) is not encouraging. Even after over 150 years of occupation in India and my own native Sri Lanka, the departure of the British led to ethnic conflicts on a major scale in both countries. It is a similar story in the many African and Asian countries that suffered under colonial rule. In fact one can make the case that the longer the colonial power stays, the greater the chance of such a conflict erupting because rather than resolving the underlying issues, the colonial power merely suppresses them, and usually tends to get identified as being partial to one side or the other. This situation breeds increasing and simmering unrest that can explode once the lid is lifted with the departure of the colonial army. So the longer the US military stays, the greater the risk of trouble when (and if) they leave.

Furthermore, it is hard to convince the Iraqi people that the US is there temporarily for humanitarian reasons when the biggest embassy in the world and massive permanent military bases are being constructed in their country. This fact alone is guaranteed to generate suspicion of the US's motives for invading Iraq, and stimulate an equally permanent insurgency, which like all struggles against an occupying military force, tends to get stronger with time, not weaker.

The second reason given to stay there is that of US national interest. It is argued that to withdraw immediately would be to concede that the US has lost the war and would show weakness in the eyes of the world. But we have to realize that when you are battling a guerilla insurgency, then even a stalemate (which is what seems to be the current state) is effectively seen as a defeat for the occupying traditional army. So in some senses, this war is already 'lost,' as even some Republican senators like Charles Grassley are conceding.

What the stalemate in Iraq has also done is actually expose a critical US military weakness. What the world sees is that a rag-tag group of insurgents, using low-level weaponry and seemingly without mass support of even its own population, has managed to tie down the US military into a no-win situation.

Another national interest argument is the infamous 'fly paper strategy,' which asserts that having the insurgents fight the US army in Iraq keeps them occupied and prevents them from carrying out attacks in the US itself. I have heard this argument often, usually in the form of alliterative couplets such as "We must fight them in Mosul so we don't fight them in Minneapolis" or "We must fight them in Tikrit so we don't fight them in Tuscaloosa."

This argument makes no sense. Apart from the unconscionable use of the US military as some kind of bait, to serve merely as targets for random acts of violence, we must never forget that Iraq and Iraqis have not committed any terrorist attacks against the US. Furthermore, the opportunity to repel an occupying army is, as opposed to distracting them from other targets, probably creating more recruits, both foreign and domestic, for the insurgency,

And finally is it really in the US national interest to have such a large fraction of its army and national guard permanently held hostage in a foreign country, effectively under siege in a few safe zones? What if another national emergency like Katrina occurs?

The final reason I will give for withdrawing from Iraq immediately is that, for all intents and purposes, an incipient civil war has already begun in Iraq even with the US troops there, so to argue that US troops there to prevent a civil war is being seen as increasingly hollow.

Whatever the reasons given in favor of continued occupation, they are clearly not working. We have been given repeated promises that after this or that event, things would get better. But as this graph created by Case for Peace activist Norman Robbins tellingly demonstrates, if we take the rate of deaths of US troops as a measure of the intensity of the insurgency, each of these so-called "turning points" has been anything but. So if what we have been doing so far has not improved anything, what is the logic of continuing doing the same thing? (See The Intelligence Squad Reports for a similar but more detailed graph.)

Calling for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq should definitely not mean that we wash our hands of responsibility for that country or its people. We owe the Iraqi people a huge debt for (1) helping Saddam Hussein consolidate his power over the people of Iraq; (2) supporting him during the period of some of his worst excesses; and (3) the massive loss of life, both direct and indirect, that runs into the hundreds of thousands and which was caused by the ten years of sanctions leading up to the war, and the deaths and destruction caused by the war itself.

What it does mean is that we should use the billions of dollars that are currently being spent on the military occupation of Iraq to instead rebuild the hospitals, the water supply and sanitation systems, the schools, the roads, and the destroyed lives of the people in devastated areas, not only of Iraq, but also of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama.

POST SCRIPT 1: What happened to the anthrax investigation?

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the anthrax attacks, which occurred right after the 9/11 attacks and helped to provide the emotional basis for the attacks on Iraq. Remember that? Like me, you may be wondering why such an important investigation seemingly went nowhere and what its current status is. Justin Raimondo, editorial director of the website, followed that investigation closely and provides an update.

POST SCRIPT 2: Constitution Day Forum

Case will host a forum on the topic: What Should Be in a Constitution?
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University
4:30 - 6:00 p.m.
(Reception with refreshments, 4:00 - 4:30 p.m., Strosacker Lobby)

With the First Annual Constitution Day Forum, Case initiates a series of discussions of how the Constitution works and affects our lives. This year's forum asks the most basic of questions: "What Should Be in a Constitution?"

The U.S. Constitution is distinctly shorter than the constitutions of other countries or of American states. It is also the oldest written constitution in the world. Does that mean we should be glad when amendments fail? Or does that mean our system is out-of-date and too slow to change?

Faculty from history, law, and political science will speak briefly, and then the floor will be open for discussion.

- Laura Y. Tartakoff, J.D., adjunct associate professor of political science, will moderate the forum.

- Elizabeth Bussiere, Ph.D., visiting associate professor of political science, will consider "Courts and Welfare Rights," why the courts have not found such rights in the Constitution.

- Jonathan Entin, J.D., professor of law and political science, will discuss "Budgets and Flags: Current Proposals for Constitutional Amendments."

- Ken Ledford, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of history and law, will contrast our constitution to others, discussing "The Constitution for Europe and Positive Liberties."

- Ted Mearns, J.D., emeritus professor of law, will discuss "What Shouldn't Be in a Constitution."

September 19, 2005

Reflections on the Camp Casey event

Last Friday evening (September 9) I moderated the event where the traveling members from Camp Casey spoke. It was gratifying to see an overflow crowd at the event, suggesting that there is real concern that something has to be done about the stalemate that is now in Iraq.

The main speakers at this event were members of the bus tour that is going around the country calling for an end to the war. These are people who are members of Gold Star Families for Peace (people who have had family members who died while serving the US military in Iraq) and/or members of Military Families Speak Out and/or members of Veterans for Peace. We were welcomed at the beginning by Rosemary Palmer who is the mother of Edward "Augie" Schroeder who was one of the fourteen Ohio marines who died on a single day in August and who, with Augie's father Paul Schroeder has since been speaking out against the war.

This nationwide bus tour is an outgrowth of the activities at what was known as Camp Casey in Crawford, TX. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan who was killed in Iraq, initially pitched a tent near Bush's ranch in an effort to confront President Bush with questions about the purpose of the war in Iraq. When he refused to meet her, the protest suddenly swelled until it became in effect a tent city.

Once Bush left Crawford at the end of his vacation, the people at the site fanned out on buses to various places, to finally convene in Washington DC on September 21, just before the planned March on Washington on September 24 to protest the Iraq war. (There will buses going from Cleveland. For details of the march and how you can join or help, please see Post Script below.)

One of the people who spoke was Bill Mitchell of California whose son was killed in Sadr City on the same day as Casey Sheehan. This sad coincidence caused him to bond with Cindy Sheehan and together they co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace. The other speakers had close relatives serving in Iraq right now.

It was a very moving evening, listening to the sad stories of these people. Because they are so close to the events and have such a personal interest in the war, it was interesting to see that they had such a nuanced and complex view of the situation. They understood that not everyone agreed with them on the need to begin an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. They knew that their own family members serving in Iraq were ambivalent about the peace activism of their family members. They felt deep compassion for the beleaguered people of Iraq. They commiserated with other military families who had also had loved ones killed in Iraq but who felt that their children had died for a noble cause and still supported the war.

In this recognition of the complexity of the situation and the fact that there were no simple answers, the speakers provided a refreshing contrast to the politicians and pundits who, not having to fight themselves and having the luxury of not having any personal stake in the occupation of Iraq, feel free to see things in stark terms of good and evil and to label opponents of their policies as 'unpatriotic' or 'not supporting the troops' or 'forgetting the lessons of 9/11' and other tired justifications of the war.

In addition to being moderator I was also due to speak but since many of the speakers spoke for longer than expected and I did not want to cut short their personal testimonies, I decide to not give my talk to leave more time for the question-and-answer session. I will post the text of my talk later.

I personally found it very moving to meet the military families who have met such personal tragedy. It was clearly hard for them to speak about what happened and one has to admire their willingness to go public with their opposition to the war, knowing that they will be criticized and even vilified.


Case for Peace is pleased to support the above peace march and rally to be held on:

Saturday, September 24 in Washington, DC

Bring the Troops Home Now!
Money for Jobs, Education, Health Care & Housing, Not for Wars and Occupations!

Buses from Cleveland depart Friday September 23, 11 PM, from Gordon Square (W 65 and Detroit) returning Sunday, September 25, morning.

Seats $45 per person round trip. Some financial help available. If you can't go, please consider contributing for scholarships.

Checks payable to Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition (NOAC) and mail to Linda Park, 1848 Beersford Rd., E. Cleveland, OH 44112

Reserve your seat now!!

For more information call the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition at 216-736-4716 or send email to NOAC.

United for Peace and Justice, a sponsor of the rally, plans additional activities on Sept. 25 and 26 in DC. For details on all 3 days, go here.

September 16, 2005

Should people be forced to evacuate the hurricane devastated areas?

There is one particular issue that I have mixed feelings about and that is the way that people who still live in New Orleans after the hurricane has passed and the process of recovery is beginning are being compelled to give up their weapons and leave their homes.

The force first comes indirectly in the form of preventing food and water from reaching them to threats to put them in handcuffs and removing them, although it is not clear if that threat has actually been carried out.

According to the New York Times officers will search all the houses in both dry and flooded neighborhoods, and no one will be allowed to stay.

Many of the residents still in the city said they did not understand why the city remained intent on forcing them out.

"I know the risks," said Renee de Pontchieux, as she sat on a stool outside Kajun's Pub in the working-class Bywater neighborhood east of downtown. "We used to think we lived in America - now we're not so sure. Why should we allow this government to chase us out and allow people from outside to rebuild our homes? We want to rebuild our homes."

They are also taking away people's weapons, even if the owners have legal rights to them.

Waters were receding across this flood-beaten city today as police officers began confiscating weapons, including legally registered firearms, from civilians in preparation for a mass forced evacuation of the residents still living here.

No civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns or other firearms, said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons," he said.

But these evacuation and disarming programs don't seem to apply to certain classes of people.

But that order apparently does not apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property. The guards, employees of private security companies like Blackwater, openly carry M-16's and other assault rifles. Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards, but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.

On the one hand, I can understand that with armed criminal gangs reportedly wandering around (although I haven't seen much evidence, such as reports of arrests of gang members, that this is a major problem), the police and other security forces patrolling the streets might be nervous about them stealing the residents' weapons, not to mention the risk that with people's nerves on edge, residents might shoot at the police thinking that they were criminals or because they feel they have the right to protect their homes from any intruder, police or otherwise.

But this does raise the question of what happened to the second amendment giving people the right to bear arms, and why gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association have not loudly protested this seeming violation of it. Perhaps there is some ruling by the Supreme Court that says that under a state of emergency the authorities have the right to disarm people. But if legal residents are disarmed while they are in an area where the civil government has broken down, this does make them more vulnerable to criminals.

The other troubling question is whether people like Ms. de Pontchieux should be allowed to take the risk of staying on in their homes if they are in a position to make that decision. After all, we allow people to do all kinds of things that risk their safety. They can go mountain climbing, sail solo in deep ocean waters, hang gliding, smoke, etc. and when they get into trouble, we do not begrudge the rescue efforts. So why shouldn't the people of New Orleans who want to remain be allowed to stay in their homes?

I can understand the humanitarian impulse behind wanting them to leave. With no electricity, running water, or proper sanitation, the risks to them of contracting illnesses from all the filth and debris and pollution may be high. But shouldn't that be their choice, as long as their continued presence does not cause a health hazard or prevent cleanup efforts?

The authorities also say that they cannot cope with having to provide the people who stay with food and security for their safety, but it is not clear to me that the people staying in their homes and businesses asked for these things. If they haven't, then why is it necessary to ask them to leave?

Perhaps the one thing that troubles me most was the original decision by the Mayor of New Orleans to deny remaining residents food and water as a means of coercing them to leave. It cannot be that hard, especially in the US with all its resources, to provide food and water to the estimated 10,000 people still remaining. At most it is a minor expense and inconvenience to the authorities. To me, the right to food and water is so basic that it should never be used as a weapon and we should never deny it to anyone. So I was heartened when Army Lt. General Honore, newly appointed head of the military's Joint Task Force Katrina, immediately ordered the soldiers to not point their weapons at people and countermanded the Mayor's order and gave water and food to the people who remained because he wanted to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved.

Once again, we are confronted with the thorny question of the right of individuals to be left alone coming into conflict with the needs of the state. There may be no easy answers to such questions but I am concerned that there does not seem to be a serious discussion of them.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, part 3-II and part 4.

POST SCRIPT 2: Private and public relief efforts

Cartoonist and essayist Ted Rall in his article Charities are for suckers puts into words something that has been bothering me, and that is the question of whether private charities are letting the government off the hook for disaster relief.

September 15, 2005

Why poor people find it hard to abandon their homes

One of the commentators who harshly criticized the reluctance of so many poor people to leave prior to and after the hurricane hit New Orleans expressed amazement at their attitude. After all, he, said, such people had few possessions of value. Their clothes and furniture were of Goodwill store quality and their cars were usually junk. Unlike rich people who owned things of real value, poor people's stuff was valueless and thus could be easily abandoned to the floodwaters or looters. He concluded that their reluctance to leave was irrational and their stubborn decision to stay in the face of warnings meant that they had forfeited any right to sympathy and assistance.

But as I said in a previous posting, such an attitude, apart from betraying a dismaying lack of empathy, also reveals a deep lack of understanding. It is precisely because they are so poor that whatever possessions they own are so valuable to them. Poor people who buy and drive beaten up old cars do so because it was what they can just barely afford. For many, having even a very old car means the difference between working and being unemployed, eating and going hungry, since a car may be the only way they can get to their jobs. Losing that car is a major disaster for them, whereas for better-off people, losing a car to flooding or looting does not have the same impact. It can be a financial hit but it is rarely life-changing.

Another reason that some people (both poor and not-so-poor) refused to leave their homes was because they could not take their pets with them and this too mystified some observers. Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist responded this way to someone who wondered why he/she found it so disturbing to see animals in distress or dead during the storm. He said: "Beats me. But then again, I cannot fathom why all these folks who stayed behind to take care of their pets would risk their lives for an animal that they could easily replace at any pet store."

I can only conclude that Fisher has never really had and loved a pet. If you ask most pet owners, making the decision not to abandon a pet would be considered not only perfectly rational but they would be surprised to think that there was any other option. Abandoning their pet would be considered inhumane.

I saw a video clip in which a man was telling reporters that a young man and his dog had rescued him from his roof. All three were by the roadside because the young man was refusing to leave New Orleans because his dog, which had been the twenty-four year old man's friend and companion for fourteen years, would not be able to go with him. During the entire interview, the young man was petting and holding on to the dog and crying while the dog, recognizing that his owner was distressed, affectionately licked his face and tried to console him, as dogs are wont to do.

It was only after the interviewer promised to take the dog in his own vehicle to Baton Rouge and reunite him there later with the young man that he relinquished his grasp of the dog. And the story did have a happy ending when they showed the pair happily together again the following day. It was an extremely moving clip.

Is such a fierce attachment to an animal irrational? Perhaps. But if so, I would argue that it is precisely such irrational attachments that make life worth living. Pets bring us great joy and affection.

I must admit that before I acquired a dog of my own, I too did not fully understand the strong feelings that people have towards their pets, so I do not want to judge harshly the person who made the above statement about the disposability of pets. I just want to suggest that we cannot always assume that we know and understand what is important to other people and prescribe how they should act in extreme situations.

We are not machines. Our whole emotional fabric is wrapped around our personal life experiences and when people's life situations are much different from ours, it is likely that they will have different views on what is important in their lives and what to do in extreme situations. Especially in their times of great need, we have to respect their wishes as much as is humanly possible. And our emergency rescue procedures should take this into account when we make evacuation plans.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, and part 3-II.


Sometimes one picture really does just say it all….


(Thanks to the Progressive Review website.)

September 14, 2005


In an earlier post, I gave a summary of a radio program that featured eyewitness reports by two San Francisco paramedics who had been attending a conference and ended up trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. What follows is their extended report in their own words that expands on their radio interview. It is long but I did not want to edit it in any way (except for hyphenating an obscenity) because it is so compelling. (Note: I first received this via an email from a colleague at Case but later also found it on the Counterpunch website here.)

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreens store at the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the city's historic French Quarter remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing, and the milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat.

The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers and prescriptions, and fled the city. Outside Walgreens' windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry. The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized, and the windows at Walgreens gave way to the looters.

There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices and bottled water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead, they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.

We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home on Saturday. We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreens in the French Quarter.

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and police struggling to help the "victims" of the hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.

The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

Most of these workers had lost their homes and had not heard from members of their families. Yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20 percent of New Orleans that was not under water.

* * *

ON DAY Two, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina.

Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources, including the National Guard and scores of buses, were pouring into the city. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible, because none of us had seen them.

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the city. Those who didn't have the requisite $45 each were subsidized by those who did have extra money.

We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and newborn babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived at the city limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By Day Four, our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously bad. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that "officials" had told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard.

The guard members told us we wouldn't be allowed into the Superdome, as the city's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. They further told us that the city's only other shelter--the convention center--was also descending into chaos and squalor, and that the police weren't allowing anyone else in.

Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only two shelters in the city, what was our alternative?" The guards told us that this was our problem--and no, they didn't have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile "law enforcement."

* * *

WE WALKED to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing--that we were on our own, and no, they didn't have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred.

We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn't stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.

In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge to the south side of the Mississippi, where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.

The crowd cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation, so was he sure that there were buses waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, "I swear to you that the buses are there."

We organized ourselves, and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group, and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news.

Families immediately grabbed their few belongings, and quickly, our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, as did people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and other people in wheelchairs. We marched the two to three miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.

As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.

* * *

OUR SMALL group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and, in the end, decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway--on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned that we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway, and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.

All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away--some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.

Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery that New Orleans had become.

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now--secure with these two necessities, food and water--cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the city with food and water in the first two or three days, the desperation, frustration and ugliness would not have set in.

Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.

From a woman with a battery-powered radio, we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the city. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway. The officials responded that they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us" had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking city) was accurate. Just as dusk set in, a sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces and screamed, "Get off the f------- freeway." A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of "victims," they saw "mob" or "riot." We felt safety in numbers. Our "we must stay together" attitude was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

The next day, our group of eight walked most of the day, made contact with the New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search-and-rescue team.

We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.

* * *

WE ARRIVED at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We eight were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op.

After being evacuated on a Coast Guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas. There, the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses didn't have air conditioners. In the dark, hundreds of us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport--because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly and disabled, as we sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we weren't carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt reception given to us by ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome.

Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

Tom Tomorrow gets to have the last word with his inimitable weekly This Modern World cartoon.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1 and part 2 .

For those of you in the Cleveland area, I want to recommend to you this week's physics colloquium. The speaker Douglas Hofstadter, a one-time physicist now working in a whole range of other areas wrote one of (for me at least) the most fascinating and provocative books called Godel, Escher, and Bach, which playfully wove together ideas from a whole range of topics to investigate the nature of knowledge and how the brain works. You can see from the abstract of his talk below that he is somewhat of a whimsical character. Note that the whole abstract is one long sentence….!

The colloquium is on Thursday, September 15 at 4:15 pm in Rockefeller 301 on the Case campus. It is free and open to the public.

Indiana University

Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science
Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy,
Comparative Literature, and Psychology

"A Pocket-Sized Telling of the Genesis of the Greatest Ideas of the Greatest Thinker of All Time"
"How Analogy Showed Einstein the Light, and How Light Showed Einstein the Universe"

Abstract of talk:

Call it hubris or call it hubris squared, but somebody had to tackle it in this, the centenary of Albert Einstein's "Annus Mirabilis" -- "Miraculous Year" in Latin -- and so I, once a physicist of sorts, and now a cognitive scientist fascinated by how people think, and in particular by the universality of analogy-making in human thinking, ranging from the most modest to the most exalted acts of cognition, inevitably found myself turning my metaphorical gaze to the above-mentioned thinker par excellence and reading his own papers as well as books and papers about him, in which, somewhat to my surprise and certainly to my deep gratification, the density of beautiful yet simple analogies was not only high but indeed overwhelming, which fact lent unexpectedly strong support to my long-standing thesis that intuitive, artistic analogy-making is the mental mainspring in the development of concepts in physics, and given that this thesis was so happily confirmed in the salient case of the Newton of the twentieth century, I have now framed a celebratory talk in which my goal is to summarize my findings with as much clarity as I know how to muster, presenting in particular the gist of the genesis of, and highlighting the key role of analogy in, Einstein’s discovery of (in chronological order) the quantum of light, the theory of special relativity, the equivalence of energy and mass, the quantum of sound, the principle of equivalence, and of course, last but not least, the theory of general relativity, the entire event lasting no more than an hour, or at least so I most fondly hope...

September 13, 2005

Why natural disasters don't affect all equally

There has been one aspect of the hurricane Katrina events and its aftermath that has been bothering me and that is the harsh way that people are being criticized for not leaving the city either in advance of the storm or even after.

In a much earlier post concerning the Terri Schiavo case, I said that I find it almost impossible to judge other people's actions based on hypothesizing what one would do in if one were in that other person's situation, if the hypothetical situation is very different from what one has personally experienced. In the Schiavo case, I felt that since I had never had to make a decision about removing life support from someone close to me, I couldn't really make a judgment about whether Schiavo's parents or her husband was in the right.

The same situation applies to forced evacuations of people from the devastated areas. I am lucky to have never been in such a situation. My own feeling is that I would very likely have evacuated. But unlike some officials and other commentators, I am not going to criticize those who made the decision to stay.

As has become clear, being told to leave and having the ability to leave quickly are two very different things. Although I have never been rich and don't expect (or even have the desire) to be so, I am extremely fortunate in that I have never been really poor either, in the sense of ever having had to worry about my next meal or whether I had clothes and shoes to wear, or whether I would have a house and a bed to sleep in at night. In the event of a disaster, it would be easy for me, for example, to put my family in a car and drive away to a safe place and to use my savings and credit card to get food and housing, until insurance kicks in to help us replace our belongings and rebuild our lives. At most, evacuating temporarily would be an inconvenience.

But for poor people, who live from paycheck to paycheck, and have no savings or credit cards, leaving their homes is much more difficult. Where will they go? Where will they stay? How will they pay? A lot of them have no cars at their disposal and even if they do may not have enough ready money at their disposal to fill up the tank to make a long trip away from danger. They have to depend very much on the kindness and charity of strangers and this is something that they may not expect to receive, since poor people are often looked upon with suspicion by those who are better off.

The way poor people view their relationship with the world is different from that of middle class or rich people. While the stereotype is that poor people are the ones who are accustomed to getting things "free" from the state, the reality is that it is the better off amongst us who expect the state to provide us with high quality services (highways, police, health care, fire protection, and other government services) either for free or at subsidized rates, and who expect the government to promptly take care of us in emergencies. Poor people don't automatically view government officials (especially the police, military) as their allies whose duty is to protect them, the way that middle class and rich people do. The events in New Orleans, and particularly what happened on the bridge to Gretna is only going to confirm their suspicions that they will be treated as less deserving of even the basic decencies.

As an extreme example, a rescue worker in a helicopter who was trying to lift someone off the roof of her building spoke of his amazement when the woman was reluctant to get on board because she was worried that she would have to pay for the ride and she had no money. Such a thought would never cross the mind of the better off, who instead would be very angry if they were not rescued promptly by government authorities.

Although most people have poor relatives and have seen homeless and other very destitute people, that does not really qualify us to understand and really feel what it is like to be poor. I remember the impact that George Orwell's semi-autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London had on me. In it he described his own experiences of being poor and sometimes homeless in those cities. More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in her poor Nickel and Dimed: Being Poor in America described what it was like to be, at least temporarily, a member of the working poor.

In both books what comes across is, contrary to expectations, how complicated life is when you are poor. We tend to think that it is rich people with their property and mortgages and investments and possessions whose lives are complicated. But those two books say that making a go of it when you are poor means always living on the edge.

Poor people live a precarious day-to-day existence and to survive they usually depend on an informal network of people and services around them to survive. Getting to work at often more than one job, taking care of children, cooking and cleaning house, and the other things that go into maintaining daily life often involve tricky juggling because they do not have the extra money or time that can simplify things. Such people often have to borrow money and food and other items from friends, relatives, and neighbors to tide things over in emergencies, and the 'emergencies' themselves occur so often as to be almost routine. A lot of the services that better off people pay for are arranged through a system of bartering so that people are tied into more people than their immediate families. (See Dave's comment to the previous posting. He has worked as a doctor in the poorer sections of New Orleans and knows the conditions of the people there.)

All this makes people tightly bound to their immediate environments and can make it hard to leave. To suddenly move somewhere else is much more difficult for them to do than for people like me because their supporting network is an important part of their lives and having it suddenly ripped apart is difficult to accept. While I like my own neighbors and my community, I am not really dependent on them for my daily living. I could move tomorrow to another part of the city or another county or state without too much difficulty.

I will explore this more in a future posting, to drive home that point that perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn those who did not, and still do not, want to leave their homes.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1


The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and SAGES present THE ANISFIELD-WOLF LECTURE

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will give a talk on Pursuing a Dream: W.E.B. Du Bois and His Encyclopedia,

Thursday, September 15, 2005

11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Severance Hall 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

The event is free and open to the public. To register, go here.

September 12, 2005

A radio program that should not be missed

I have not been writing about the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast because I felt that there was little that I could add to everything that was being said. Like most people, I have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and the fact that we are seeing the evacuation of a major city that may not be inhabitable for months due to the difficulty of drying out a below-sea-level area.

But over the weekend, I listed to this week's edition of the NPR radio program This American Life and the show was so powerful that I felt compelled to alert readers of this blog that it is one show that must be listened to. Fortunately, you can listen to it online. The program is one hour long but you will be so engrossed that you will not feel the time passing. If any radio program is deserving of an award, this one is.

The program usually consists of the host Ira Glass putting together stories about and from people around some theme. Last weekend's program called After the Flood was about the hurricane events in New Orleans. It was in five segments, an introduction followed by four 'acts' as the show likes to label them. If you have limited time, listen to at least the first, second, and third 'acts'.

The introductory segment had a knowledgeable person who quoted the laws governing emergencies to expose as hollow the current attempt by the White House to shift blame away from them and onto city and state authorities, and say that that their delay in providing relief was because they could not act until the local authorities gave them the green light. This expert said that the laws are unambiguous that the federal authorities had all the powers needed to act from the very beginning, without waiting for state and local authorities to authorize or request specific actions.

The first act was an eyewitness report by a hospital worker who ended up at the infamous Convention Center. She described the reasons why she and others could not leave town and the appalling filth and stench that she encountered when she arrived at the center. She also said that the 'looters' and 'thugs' were the only ones taking care of the people there. The 'thugs' took control in designated areas, kept order, and protected the people because everyone had heard rumors of rapes and assaults, although she did not witness anything of that sort. The 'looters' would go out and get water and food and juice boxes (for the children) and pass them around. This woman said that while the officials did nothing for them except keep them trapped inside and feed them false information and threaten them, the 'thugs' and 'looters' were the ones who actually did things to help the people there and make them feel secure.

The second act was a report by two emergency medical services people (I think paramedics) from San Francisco who had been attending a convention in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. These two women described what happened at their hotel and later their experiences stuck on a highway bridge as they tried to walk away from the city. This story clarified something that had been puzzling me for sometime. During the storm I had wondered how it was that news crews seemed to be able to enter and leave the city freely while there were these pictures of people seemingly stuck for days by the side of a dry highway. Why didn't they simply walk away, if they were physically able?

The two EMS women explained why, confirming other reports that have begun to emerge. (See a New York Times report here.) It turns out that on the other side of the bridge was a small suburban community called Gretna and their sheriff and police were guarding the entrance to their town and shooting at the people on the bridge to prevent them from entering their town. So the people were stuck there on the bridge. The two EMS women (who were white) said their small group of eight had been joined by about 70 other people (mostly black) and they created a small community on the bridge which shared water and food, kept the place clean, created small 'toilets', and looked after the children and the elderly and infirm. She said that at one point a 'looter' came by in a truck and unloaded all the five gallon containers of water he had been able to get from somewhere, and took away as many children and their families as he could load into his vehicle. She said that the able bodied people in the group also ran to quickly collect some emergency rations that had accidentally fallen off a FEMA truck which was racing by, ignoring them. With this food and water, she said that the little community felt a little better. They also felt safe because night was approaching and the bridge was one of the few places where street lights were still working.

But as night fell, a Gretna policeman came and screamed menacingly at them to leave the bridge, and they had to go back towards New Orleans into the dangerous darkness. As she left, she saw a helicopter fly low over their makeshift 'village' and deliberately blow away all the little structures the group had put up to keep things orderly and sanitary.

The third act was about a young boy in a neighboring parish who spoke about what it felt like to have no food or water for days and to begin to think that the country as a whole had abandoned them. The final act was by a woman who had managed to escape before the storm to Florida, whose home had been flooded, and who was wondering what to do now, followed by a description about the trailer parks that were set up by FEMA as temporary housing after earlier hurricanes.

All the stories were very moving but as I listened I also became increasingly angry. On the one hand one had these amazing stories of people who had lost everything, who felt completely helpless and abandoned, coming together and overcoming race and class to try and help each other get through a desperate situation. On the other hand, you had the ugly sight of race and class prejudice seemingly being a factor in keeping people trapped in appalling conditions, preventing assistance from reaching them, and then blaming them for their situation afterwards.

I have given up hope that there will be any accountability of the national political leadership for the ghastly debacle that is now Iraq. Supporters of the war are fond of pointing out how bad Saddam Hussein was because of the cruelties that he inflicted on 'his own people,' as if that fact was ever contested by anybody, and as if that excuses the mess that this administration has made over there.

But apart from the damage created by the hurricane itself, what happened to the people of New Orleans and the neighboring areas was also done by us to 'our own people.' The outrageous treatment of them goes beyond mere incompetence and enters the realm of criminal negligence. There is enough culpability at all levels of government, city, state, and national. If major heads don't roll for this atrocity that, unlike Iraq, cannot be sheltered under the cloaks of patriotism and nationalistic fervor, then we can say that accountability is truly dead.

September 09, 2005

Should children be labeled according to religion?

If you ask children what their religion is, they will unhesitatingly answer. They will say that they are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. and from their answer you can confidently predict that this is the religion of at least one parent, and usually both.

This kind of labeling is not very meaningful. If religious beliefs are to be in any way meaningful, they have to be on the basis of a freely made choice. Compelling sometime to adopt a religion makes a mockery of that religion. But although children are not formally compelled to follow a particular religion, they are usually only taught the tenets of their parents' religion and are unaware that other religious options are open to them or that they have the option to reject the religion of their parents until they are much older. By then, they have become used to being believers in the family religious tradition, and very few people seek out information about other religions unless they experience deep dissatisfaction with their parents' one.

But the ideas contained in religions are deep, subtle, and complex, and it is unreasonable to think that young children are in any position to make a choice about what religious structure they find compelling.

So why do we label children according to religion? Richard Dawkins takes a strong stand against this and argues that classifying children as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. is a form of "mental child abuse" because such labels imply a choice of beliefs that only adults are in a position to make. In his essay Is Science a Religion? based on a speech given on the occasion of his accepting the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, he says:

I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question - without even noticing how bizarre it is - that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Of course, one obvious counter to Dawkins' argument is that parents do influence their children in their political, economic, and social thinking, so why should religion be any different? But it is true that we do not assign political or economic labels to children the way we do with religious labels.

One reason that parents bring up their children in their own religious tradition is because they want to teach them moral behavior and most people cannot separate morality from religion. I do find it a little strange when some people say that without religion there can be no morality and that it is only belief in god that prevents people from (say) killing other people. To me it seems obvious that you can have universal moral values that are independent of religion.

Another reason that parents bring up their children in a religious tradition is that because they think that their own religion is the 'true' one and see no reason to not teach their children the truth, just like they would teach them that the Earth orbits the Sun.

The so-called Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) want students, in the name of 'fairness,' to be taught the "controversy" of evolution and intelligent design in science classes so that students can choose which is better. If they are so enamored with the notion of giving students choices and teaching controversy, perhaps they should set an example by encouraging churches and religion classes to also "teach the controversy" by teaching children evolution as well, and also the basic tenets of all religions (and atheism) and letting children choose which belief structure they prefer to follow.

But don't hold your breath that they will do this. The long-range plan of IDC advocates, as outlined in their Wedge Strategy, is to make Christianity pervasive in all areas of life, not make critical thinkers out of students.

Camp Casey event in Cleveland Heights

Everyone is welcome to come to an event including members of the Camp Casey Team from Crawford, TX: Friday, Sept. 9, 7-8:30, Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (North of Fairmount and Lee), Cleveland Heights.

There is a parallel program on the West Side Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland. (For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440x423)

Both events are free and open to the public.


Welcome: Rosemary Palmer, mother of Ohio Marine killed in Iraq
Moderator: Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University

1. Gold Star Families:
A. Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, CA, whose son Sgt. Michael Mitchell was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq on April 4, 2004, along with Cindy Sheehan's son Spc. Casey Sheehan. Bill is a founder of Gold Star Families for Peace.

B. Beatriz Saldivar of Fort Worth, TX, whose nephew Daniel Torres was killed in action on February 4th, 2005 in Baygii, 155 miles north of Baghdad, on his 2nd tour of Iraq when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploded and hit his unarmored Humvee. She is available for interviews in English and Spanish.

2. Mylion Waite, Associate Paster, Antioch Baptist Church

3. Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University, "The Case for Bringing the Troops Home Now"

4. Military Families Speak Out (family members of current US troops in Iraq) participants: Kallisa Stanley of Killeen, TX, whose husband is in the Army and currently stationed at Ft. Hood. He served one year-long tour of duty in Iraq and is scheduled to be redeployed to Iraq next year.

5. Iraq Veterans for Peace participant: Chris Snively

There will then be a Question and Answer interactive discussion with the audience.

September 08, 2005

Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating - 2

In an earlier posting on this topic, I argued that one reason that scientists fare poorly in public political-type debates or on TV talk shows is that the style of argumentation they encounter in those venues is very different from the style they become expert in in their academic discourses. If you are not prepared for this different style, and take steps to counter it, then you can get blind-sided and come off looking poorly. This is why while the scientific case against so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) is so strong as to justify the phrase 'slam dunk', the popular perception does not match it, because scientists who debate ID proponents often do not realize that they are no longer debating according to the rules of scientific argumentation.

This is one reason why, in the past, scientists used to not come off well in their debates with IDCs (Intelligent Design Creationists). It is no accident that one of the most visible IDC proponents is Phillip Johnson who is not a scientist at all, but a lawyer. The situation has improved recently as scientists are catching on to the strategies used by creationists and have developed better debating practices.

One of the strategies that creationists use is to base arguments on scientific theories that are so esoteric or new that the particular scientists they are debating may not be aware of these theories. In the debates about evolution, the scientists who were initially most involved were biologists, which was natural since it was their field that was under attack. But while they could deal with the biological issues involved, they often found themselves unexpectedly confronting arguments from physics and chemistry and even mathematics.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University is a devout practicing Catholic who has been one of the key people confronting the IDCs. In an NPR interview, he said that in the early days he was invited by a student group to take part in a debate with an ID proponent. Thinking that this would be a public service on his part and a good thing to do, he went for advice to his friend and colleague the late Stephen Jay Gould who had been writing extensively on this topic. To his surprise, Gould told him not to debate and that if he went ahead and agreed, he (Gould) would not help him in any way. Gould told him that scientists always did badly in such debates despite having the stronger case and the end result was merely to give the ID movement greater credibility. He did not want to be a party to this exercise.

Miller said he was surprised by this response but also intrigued. So he went to see another debate between a biologist and an ID advocate and immediately saw what Gould was talking about. While the biologist was knowledgeable in countering the biological arguments against evolution, most of the time he was subjected to arguments from physics, chemistry, geology, etc. for which he was unprepared. One of these arguments was the one from the second law of thermodynamics dealing with inexorably increasing entropy (the fraudulent use of which I discussed in an earlier posting). Miller said that he realized that himself did not know what entropy was and what this law was about.

As a result of watching this debate, Miller realized that he had to prepare quite differently for his own debate than what he had originally planned. He had to find out what all these non-biological arguments were, investigate all these areas outside of his specialty, and talk to colleagues in other departments about these concepts and how they should be properly used. In other words, he had to spend a considerable amount of time preparing not only the biological arguments which scientists had previously naively thought were the only ones that mattered, but also arguments in other scientific areas, and also the non-scientific ways of argument that he would likely encounter.

As a result of his careful preparation, he was able to completely rout his opponent in the debate and this has led to him being one of the people most sought-after on the anti-IDC debate circuit.

But his experience also illustrates why scientists are so reluctant to engage in this kind of public debates. If they don't prepare carefully like Miller, they are taken by surprise by the kinds of debating tricks that a career in science does not prepare you for. To do it well requires that scientists do a lot of preparation outside their own area of research and this is time that is taken away from that research. This kind of activity does not help them in their own investigations and is not recognized as the kind of scholarly work that forms the reward structure of universities, so scientists have to do it on their own time and on their own dime, so to speak. There is no organized anti-IDC program. Opposition to IDC ideas comes from a loose collection of scientists, acting largely independently of each other, who feel a sense of obligation to counter what they see as a harmful anti-science movement.

Contrast this with the way the pro-IDC operation works. They have well-funded institutions like the Center for Science and Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (which is the prime force and funder behind the IDC movement) which hires people either full time or as consultants and provides them with abundant resources to pursue this goal single-mindedly. These people get time and money, forums for their writings, and support for their travel to give talks all over the country and to appear before school boards, legislative bodies and the like. They do not have to set up laboratories, teach courses, publish in peer-reviewed journals, supervise theses, and meet all the other demands on the time and energy of scientists in universities or research institutes. So it should not be surprising that they have been able to hone an effective message despite the weakness of their case on its scientific merits.

But as I said before, in the long run ID will lose in its struggle with evolution for the same reason that many similar anti-science movements have lost in the past despite initial successes. And that reason is that in the final analysis, science and society have no use for useless ideas.

More on this topic in future postings.


From Crawford, TX, working with and inspired by Cindy Sheehan, members of the Camp Casey (Bring The Troops Home Now) tour will present their experiences and views, and answer questions. Members include parents of soldiers killed in Iraq, families with sons or daughters in Iraq, and Iraq veterans.

There are two simultaneous and similar events, one east and one west side, both on Friday, September 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

East side:
Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (north of Lee and Fairmount), Cleveland Heights
For further information: 216-536-3119

West side:
Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland
For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440x423

The events are free and open to the public. Military families and those still undecided are welcome.

(Note: I will be the moderator of the East side event and will also speak briefly during the program.)

September 07, 2005

How far does religious freedom extend?

In a previous posting that dealt with the problems that arise when you allow religious oaths in selecting jurors, I suggested that many of the religion-related frictions that occur in society would go away if the public sphere was made secular, and religion and religious practices stayed in the private sphere.

But while that might take care of some of the irritations that currently consume a lot of time and energy (swearing oaths, prayer in schools, the ten commandments in courts and city halls, locations of nativity scenes at Christmas, etc.) it would not take care of other issues, even in the unlikely event that the country committed itself to such a strict secular-religious demarcation.

In a comment to that previous posting, Erin pointed out that the separation might be hard to maintain when certain religious practices were taken into account since those practices might overlap with the public sphere. For example, she points out that certain religious groups such as Christian Scientists do not believe in taking medicine and would not take their children to a doctor even in the case of life threatening illnesses. And she also raises the issue about other religious groups that practice female genital mutilation. Should a secular state defer to religious sensibilities and stay out of such matters?

In a response to Erin, Paul pointed out that the religious freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights do not extend to actual practices, and that the courts have ruled that the state has an over-riding interest in the welfare of children that enables it to overturn the wishes of the parents if it feels that the life and health and well-being of children are threatened. So parental religious beliefs cannot be extended to cover actions that affect their children if those actions can harm their lives and well-being.

Not being a constitutional lawyer, I am not sure if that is the last word on the legal status currently prevailing in the US. But in some ways that is irrelevant because I am more interested in exploring what might be a reasonable way of reconciling the secular and religious interests in a society, and will leave aside specific questions of constitutionality and legality for others who are more knowledgeable in those areas to determine.

My own view is that people should have the freedom to believe anything they want, to practice their religion, to seek converts, and to gather with like-minded people to worship, provided all these things involve consenting adults who are making voluntary choices to participate. But religious freedom surely cannot be extended to those who would wish to impose their own belief on others or if the practices impinge on the rights of others.

I would also argue that secular laws should not have religious beliefs as their only basis. They must also have a secular justification. For example, you should not be able to pass a law that criminalizes homosexuality or prevents gay marriages just because some religious people find some objection to it in the Bible. Laws that regulate human behavior have to have a clearly articulated secular purpose.

Of course, drawing the lines between what religious practices are allowed and what not is always a tricky issue that requires an extended discussion (and usually litigation), but here I just want to deal with the rights of children. I agree with Paul that the state has a right, and even an obligation, to protect the rights of those in no position to defend their rights and children clearly fall into that category.

So I also agree with Erin and am firmly opposed to the genital mutilation of female children because you are causing irreversible changes on a child's body without the child being in a position to give informed consent. Once the child becomes an adult, they should be able to make such a decision for themselves.

That same argument should apply to male circumcision as well. This again is something that I believe should be decided by someone after they become an adult, but of course this practice is common and does not cause any outrage. One reason for the two different responses seems to be that male circumcision has been sanctioned by western religious traditions while female genital mutilation has not. And from what I have read female genital mutilation seems to be a very dangerous, painful, and sometimes life-threatening procedure.

But if we are to be consistent on this issue, we should say that parents should not have the right to violate the physical integrity of children and impose irreversible physical changes on their bodies purely on the basis of religion, and that policy should apply equally to male and female children.

September 06, 2005

Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating

Scientists are no strangers to arguments. In fact, they enjoy and revel in them. Go to any science meeting or seminar or read science journals and you will find scientists involved in spirited debates, and the arguments tend to be of high quality and sharply reasoned. But put scientists on public platforms and on talk shows and they often come off poorly and it is interesting to see why.

One reason is that the two kinds of arguments are not the same. Arguments among scientists tend to follow certain implicit rules of operation that, over time, scientists have found useful in increasing their understanding of whatever is being argued about. Scientific arguments typically begin when one scientist asserts something that does not sound right to another scientist. When challenged, it is understood by both sides that the source of the disagreement must be because of one or more of three reasons: the facts that have been used in the argument (either the facts used are wrong or not relevant or other relevant facts have not been considered); the premises on which the argument is based are not valid; or there is a flaw in the logic or line of reasoning that led to the disputed conclusion.

Scientific arguments center around these three issues and the parties to the argument explore each area until the reasons for the disagreement are found and agreed upon. Once that point is reached, one side may concede that they were mistaken or the two parties agree to disagree pending further investigation and leave it at that. But whatever the outcome, the exercise is usually very illuminating for both sides because in the process subtle issues have been brought to the surface and examined closely.

We can thus describe scientific arguments as a process of "narrowing down," paring down the disagreement to its barest essentials so that the core issues involved are starkly exposed and amenable to close examination.

But take a look at the kinds of "debates" that take place on talk shows or in the political arena. These are of a completely different kind for which the kinds of arguing skills that scientists are good at are either of no use or are positively disadvantageous.

Here is an example. Suppose someone (X) states on a TV talk show that one of the stated main rationales for the invasion of Iraq (that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the capacity to use them) was fraudulent because no such weapons were found and it was clear that there was no evidence even before the war that they ever had them, let alone the desire to use them. If someone else (Y) were to disagree with the speaker and the debate were to follow the rules of scientific arguments, then the discussion would focus on seeing whether the disagreement was due to the way that WMDs were being defined, examining the extent and nature of the evidence that had been used, and studying the reasoning by which the evidence was pieced together to arrive at the conclusion that Iraq was a dangerous threat.

You will rarely, if ever, see that kind of discussion take place in the popular media. In those forums, the preferred mode is the flank attack because the point of those debates is not to uncover the core issues but to "win", which is often measured by who comes off looking more confident and assured and on the attack. People who are thoughtful and take time to respond are seen as weak and losers.

So in a political debate, when X makes the assertion about WMDs, Y may respond by asking X whether he is saying that the people of Iraq would have been better off with Saddam Hussein still in power. The scientifically-arguing X then gets side-tracked and feels obliged to examine the assertion of whether Iraq is better off now, and also to defend against the implied charge that X is a big fan of the former Iraqi leader and wants nothing better than to see him returned to power.

Even then, X may try to restore the scientific argument structure, by trying to compare the living conditions before the invasion (political repression but civil structures functioning) with the conditions after (seeming anarchy) and seeing how one could weigh the relative situations, and how one tries to define 'better.' But this is hopeless because before he/she has gone far with it, Y will jump in and suggest that X, by not loudly and firmly stating that the US was right to attack and occupy Iraq is not supporting the US troops and is in fact giving aid and comfort to the Iraqi insurgents. Then X will begin to defend against this new charge only to find that time has run out.

Political debates are full of such non-sequiturs. Rather than "narrowing down", the strategy is to always keep moving and your opponent off-balance by bringing up unexpected flank attacks and putting the other person always on the defensive. Since it takes time to formulate a coherent response to an unexpected line of attack, person X comes across as ignorant or unprepared or not sure of the facts and thus "loses" the debate.

Furthermore, honest answers to complex problems tend to be conditional in nature (prefaced by phrases like "If this happens…." or "Under these conditions…."). But in the black/white, yes/no, we/they dichotomous world of political "debates", such nuanced responses tend to be portrayed as equivocal and evasive.

This may sound like an extreme caricature, but watch closely and you will see examples of this all the time in the media. Lawyers joke that "When the facts of the case are on your side, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both the facts and the law are against you, pound the table." The idea of this latter kind of "debate" is to deflect attention from the weaknesses of your own case by focusing attention elsewhere and not letting your opponent have time to develop a coherent argument.

This distinction is relevant when scientists argue with creationist/ID advocates because such debates are essentially political and not scientific ones. In future postings, I will discuss other differences and how one should deal them to become more effective debaters.


Over the weekend, I went to see the film The Constant Gardener. I can highly recommend it to those who like politically-based thrillers. It had some elements in common with the book Mountains Beyond Mountains that was selected by Case for this years common reading, in that the backdrop to the story is the appalling way health care, especially the treatment of drug-resistant TB, is provided in poor countries and exploited for profit by drug companies. The film is based on the book by John Le Carre, which made me predisposed to like it since I have always admired his writing and his political outspokenness. The film starts off a little slowly but after about ten minutes I found it gripping.

I also saw the film I Heart Huckabees on DVD and found it highly entertaining. It is not often that one gets a Hollywood comedy with big-name actors that deals with issues of existential philosophy, the interconnectedness of things, and the meaning of life!

September 02, 2005

Misuse of scientific arguments

When I was in my first or second year of college, a friend of mine who belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in Sri Lanka said that he had heard of a convincing scientific proof against the theory of evolution. He said the proof centered on the concept of entropy. I had already heard of the term entropy at that time, but I definitely did not understand the concept, since I had not as yet studied thermodynamics in any detail.

Anyway, my friend told me that there was this law of physics that said that the total entropy of a system had to always increase. He also said that the entropy of a system was inversely related to the amount of the order and complexity in the system, so that the greater the order, the lower the entropy. Since I did not have any reason (or desire) to challenge my friend, I accepted those premises.

Then came the killer conclusion. Since it was manifestly clear that the theory of evolution implied increasing order (under the theory, biological systems were becoming more diversified, complex, and organized from their highly disordered primeval soup beginnings) this implied that the entropy of the Earth must be decreasing. This violated the law of increasing entropy. Hence evolution must be false.

It was a pretty good argument, I thought at that time. But in a year or two, as I learned more about entropy, that argument fell apart. The catch is that the law of increasing entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics) applies to closed, isolated systems only, i.e., systems that have no interaction with any other system. The only really isolated system we have is the entire universe and the law is believed to apply strictly to it.

For any other system, we have to make sure that it is isolated (at least to a good approximation) before we apply the law to it, and this is where my friend's argument breaks down. The Earth is definitely not a closed system. It continuously absorbs and radiates energy. It especially gains energy from the Sun and radiates energy into empty space and it is this exchange of energy that is the engine of biological growth.

So nothing can be inferred from the entropy of the Earth alone. You have to consider the entire system of the Sun, the Earth, and the rest of the universe, and you find that this leads to a net increase of the entire closed system. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated.

You can have decreased entropy in a part of a system provided the entropy increases by more than that amount in another part. As an analogy, consider a sock drawer in which you have black and brown socks randomly mixed together. This is a state of low order and hence high entropy. If I now sort the socks so that all the black socks are on one side of the drawer and all the brown on the other side, then the sock drawer has gone from a lower to a higher state of order, and hence from higher to a lower state of entropy. Is this a violation of the second law? No, because it ignores the fact that I was part of the system. I had to use up energy to sort the socks, and in that process my entropy increased more than the decrease in entropy of the sock drawer, so that there was a net increase in entropy of the combined system (sock drawer + me). Strictly speaking, I was also in contact with the rest of the room since I was absorbing and radiating energy, breathing, etc., so if you wanted to get to an even better approximation to a closed system to be even more accurate, you had to take the entropy of the room into account as well.

This is why physicists believe that after the Sun eventually burns up all its nuclear fuel and ceases to exist, the Earth will inevitably fall into disorder, assuming that we haven't destroyed the planet ourselves by then. (As an aside, Robert T Pennock in his book Tower of Babel says that some creationists believe that God created the second law, with its increasing disorder, as part of his punishment for Adam and Eve's fall from grace.)

Once I understood better what entropy was all about, that was the end of the entropy argument against evolution, at least as far as I was concerned. Non-physicist scientists generally caught on to the fact that people were using the entropy argument fraudulently against evolution and were able to debunk it whenever it came up, so that nowadays one rarely hears that argument. One still occasionally comes across the entropy argument used in this fallacious manner, however, and it may still have power over the scientifically naive.

But even if the entropy argument itself has largely disappeared, other 'scientific proofs' against evolution and for the existence of god have arisen in the wake of so-called intelligent design (ID) and I will look at those arguments in future postings.

September 01, 2005

The problem with grades and other summary evaluations

In previous postings (see here and here), I discussed why college rankings vary so much depending on who does the survey. One of the reasons is that different criteria are used to arrive at the rankings, making it difficult to arrive at apples-to-apples comparisons. In this posting, I will discuss why I think that rankings may actually be harmful, even if the measures used to arrive at them are good.

The main problem with rankings is that it requires a single summary score obtained by combining scores from a variety of individual measures, and it seems as if people focus exclusively on that final score and not pay too much attention to the scores on individual measures that went into the summary.

This is a general problem. For example, in course evaluations by students of their teachers, there are usually many questions that ask students to evaluate their teachers on important and specific issues, for example, whether the teacher encourages discussions, is respectful to students, etc.

But there is usually also a question that asks students to give an overall evaluation of the teacher and when such questions exist, those people who usually read the results of the surveys (students, teachers, and department chairs) tend to focus almost exclusively on this summary score and not pay much attention to the other questions. But it is the other questions that provide useful feedback on what kinds of actions need to be taken to improve. For example, a poor score on "encouraging students to discuss" tells a teacher where to look to make improvements. But an overall evaluation of "good" or "poor" for teaching does not tell the teacher anything useful on which to base specific actions.

Teachers face the same problems with course grades. To arrive at a grade for a student, a teacher will make judgments about writing, participation, content knowledge, etc. using a variety of measures. Each of those measures gives useful feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses. But as soon as you combine them into a single course grade using a weighted average, then people tend to look only at the grade, even though that really does not tell you anything useful about what a student's capabilities are. But teachers are required to give grades so we cannot avoid this.

I often hear faculty complain that they give extensive and detailed feedback on students' written work, only to see students take a quick look at the grade for the paper and then put it away in the their folders. Faculty wonder if students ever read the comments. I too give students a lot of feedback on their writing and have been considering the following idea to try to deal with this issue. Instead of writing the final grade for the paper on the paper itself, I am toying with the idea of omitting that last step and ask the students to estimate the grade that I gave the paper based on their reading of my comments. I am hoping that this will make them examine their own writing more carefully in the light of the feedback they get from others. Then when they have shared with me what grade they think they got and why, I'll tell them their grade. I am willing to even change it if they make a good case for a change.

I am a little worried that this process seems a little artificial somehow, but perhaps because that is because it is not common practice yet and anything new always feels a little strange. I am going to try it this semester.

Back to college ratings, those can be harmful for another reason and that is that the goals of a school might not mesh with the way that scores are weighted. For example, the US News & World Report rankings take into account incoming students scores on things like the SAT and ACT. But a school that feels that such scores do not measure anything meaningful in terms of student qualities (and a good case can be made for this view) might wish to look at other things it values, like creativity, ingenuity, citizenship, writing, problem solving, etc. Such a school is doomed to sink in the USN&WR rankings, even though it might be able to provide a great college experience for its students.

I am a great believer that getting useful feedback, in whatever area of activity, is an excellent springboard for improving one's performance and capabilities. In order to do so, one needs criteria, and targeted and valid measures of achievement. But all that useful information can be completely undermined when one takes that last step and combines these various measures in order to get a single score for ranking or overall summary purposes.